Better government needs people, not politicians, at the centre

Britons need better government, argues Steve Reed MP. And only the politics of empowerment can bring this about.

Britons need better government, argues Steve Reed MP. And only the politics of empowerment can bring this about

Government isn’t working. This isn’t a party-political point: the way that our government is structured wastes money and stands in the way of effective, citizen-centred public services.

Ministers know that government doesn’t deliver what they want; but rather than looking at the fundamental reasons behind this, their frustration is expressed in an attack on the Civil Service.

Francis Maude has recently declared the Civil Service to be lacking in capability, accountability and delivery discipline, repeating a complaint made by many previous ministers but which none of them has yet resolved.

Politicians are right to identify that Whitehall stands in the way of effective government, but they miss the crucial point that they themselves form a key part of that Whitehall machine. Politicians are part of the problem, but they are also central to putting things right.

Doing that requires a recognition that the flaws in the machinery of government relate to the system’s culture, structure and leadership and a commitment to changing them.

Britain suffers from too much central government, expressed in part by an over-supply of ministers. Every minister wants to do things that demonstrate their individual impact, and with so many ministers this can create a confusion of competing priorities and agendas that can overwhelm the Civil Service and distract them from government’s overarching priorities.

Britain currently has more government ministers than France and Germany combined, with little evidence that this is beneficial. Britain needs fewer ministers doing fewer things in fewer central government departments so that power can be released into communities. Government becomes more effective when it focuses on understanding then delivering the outcomes that citizens and communities really want.

Making that happen requires a revolution in the way government works, shifting power away from politicians in Whitehall and placing it in the hands of the people most affected by it. By involving people directly in the decisions that affect their lives we can harness their insights and resources to make sure that every penny of public spending is used as efficiently and effectively as possible in meeting people’s real needs.

Lambeth Council moved in a relatively short period of time from being one of the worst performing councils in the country to one of the best as measured by government inspectors, and the very best in significant areas such as children’s services. Giving citizens a bigger voice in decision-making was a critical part of this transformation.

My time there as leader taught me that clear and strong leadership is important, but that structural change is also necessary to achieve the kind of cultural change that empowering citizens requires.

As an example of the current centralising madness, take the Government’s policy of removing schools from local authority control then trying to run all of them from Whitehall. It’s impossible for a single centralised government department to oversee 24,000 schools and make sure they are all meeting minimum standards, let alone the specific needs of the different communities they serve.

There needs to be involvement by the locality in holding public services to account and making sure they are meeting local needs.

The benefits of greater citizen involvement are enormous: better value for money, stronger civil society, more innovation and enterprise, an emphasis on helping people develop the self-reliance they need to aspire to a better life. All of this is dependent on sharing power more widely. Trying to make our existing machinery of government do this is like trying to make water flow backwards up a tap.

The politics of empowerment requires a complete overhaul of government so that power can flow down to where it is best able to respond to people’s real needs and aspirations.

This abridged essay is part of a collection, ‘How to run a country’, to be published by the think tank Reform on Tuesday 9 September

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